What If: The Kamikaze and the Invasion of Kyushu? II

The officer students were more willing to respectfully interject themselves into Commodore Bates’s comments than they were to interrupt Turner, and a former destroyer captain immediately spoke up.

“That’s theoretically true, sir, but anyone who experienced the Philippines and Okinawa, or the raids on Japan, knows that in most instances you can’t actually do that and live to tell about it. The suiciders had apparently been told that, since they didn’t need the broad targets normally required for aiming bombs, the best results in their type of mission would come from bow—or stern—on attacks that allowed them to be targeted by the least amount of defensive fire. I’d seen new skippers follow COMINCH advice on this matter and the only thing that happened was a sort of Divine Wind ‘crossing the T,’ made much easier by less radical destroyer maneuvers.”

A former executive officer chimed in. “I’ve been told that even a novice pilot can be trained to perform skids, or sideslips, and when we were hit—I was on the Kimberly target skidded to always remain in the ship’s wake—and we were on hard right rudder! Only the afterguns could bear, and each 5-inch salvo blasted the 20mm crews off their feet. The Val came in over the stern, aiming for the bridge, and crashed aft the rear stack between two 5-inch mounts.”

Admiral Turner was not surprised that, given an opportunity, the talk turned to tactics. He quickly moved to elevate the discussion.

“Early in the war, after Pearl Harbor, Malaya, and the Java Sea, things looked bleak for our surface ships—and those of the Japanese as well. Naval aircraft were clearly dominating any vessels they came up against. The fielding of the proximity fuse in 1942 and 1943 increased the odds that our ships would fight off their aerial tormentors, and by 1943—just two years after Pearl Harbor—the balance of power had firmly shifted into America’s favor as our industrial base, our training base, added warships, attack aircraft, and large numbers of skilled aviators to the fleet. The duel between ships’ guns and aircraft, however, came full circle with the advent of the kamikaze. Destroying ninety percent of an inbound raid had been considered a success before Leyte, but the damage inflicted by even one suicide aircraft could be devastating. It was obvious that the invasion of Japan would entail terrible losses, and we moved to defeat the threat through increased interdiction, effective command and control, more guns, and everything we could think of to knock them down before they reached our ships.”

“Sir,” interjected a member of his audience, “one of the points noted over and over again in intelligence reports before Kyushu was that the Nips didn’t even have enough gas to train their new pilots; that, cut off from their oil in the Dutch territories and with all their refineries destroyed by the [B-29] Super-forts, they would be hard-pressed to maintain flight operations. I don’t really know anyone at my level who bought into this, but was it a factor in why we provided so little air cover at the landing sites?”

“I’ll answer that in two parts,” said Turner after a moment’s deliberation. “First, everything you said about their ability to import and refine oil was true, but not to the degree that some believed. The other part of the picture dealt with evidence from signals intelligence and the Japs’ lack of fleet activity, which appeared to be a clear sign that they had run out of gas. Their navy had drastically curtailed combat operations because of a lack of heavy fuel oil, and we were aware that shortages were the primary factor behind the ratcheting down of flight hours in their pilot training. Moreover, reports obtained from neutral embassies also indicated that the civilian population had not only been deprived of liquid fuel but that badly needed foodstuffs, such as potatoes, corn, and rice, were also being requisitioned for synthetic fuel production. We also believed that our attacks had destroyed nearly all of their storage capacity. So, while we were aware that some large number of aircraft had been successfully hidden from us, the recurring weakness of their response to our attacks reinforced the idea that those aircraft were no longer able to defend effectively.

“What we did not know was that the Japs had made a conscious decision early on to build up decentralized fuel reserves separate from those used for training, a reserve which would only be tapped for the final battles. They had seen the writing on the wall when we reestablished ourselves in the Philippines, and succeeded in rushing shipments past our new bases in February and March before that avenue was choked off. Although we sank roughly two-thirds of the tankers running north, four or five got through with 40,000 tons of refined fuel. This shipment and some domestic production formed the core of what became Japan’s strategic reserve, which included 190,000 barrels of aviation gas in hidden army stockpiles and a further 126,000 barrels held by the navy. To give you an idea of just how much gas we’re talking about here, the Japs used roughly 1.5 million barrels during flight operations against our fleet at Okinawa but—and this is important—at Okinawa they had to fly roughly triple the distances they did over Japan.

“Their perceived inability to send up large numbers of aircraft encouraged us to believe that the landing area’s immediate defense could be left to our escort carriers, while the nearly 1,800 aircraft of Task Force 58’s fleet carriers were assigned missions as far north as 600 miles from Kyushu, well beyond Tokyo. Aircraft from only two of Admiral Spruance’s task groups were dedicated to suppression efforts north and east of the screen thrown up by Adm. [Clifton A. E] Sprague’s escorts. I and others argued strenuously—and unsuccessfully—that this was taking a lot for granted. We didn’t need a show of force all up and down Honshu. We needed a blanket of Hellcats and Corsairs at the decisive point. We needed them at Kyushu. Yes, command and control would be extremely difficult, maybe impossible, with that many planes concentrated over that airspace. But it would be worth it if the Japs succeeded in massing for an all-out lunge at the transports—and that’s exactly what they did.”

“Sir, weren’t there also fewer escort carriers taking a direct part in the invasion than there might have been?”

“Yes,” replied Turner, “but a certain amount of that was unavoidable. A total of thirty-six escort carriers took part in some facet of Majestic, but many had to be siphoned off to protect the far-flung elements of the invasion force. For example, four escort carriers were assigned to provide cover for slow-moving convoys plying the waters between the Philippines and Kyushu against more than 600 Jap aircraft that could be brought into play through their bases on Formosa. Sprague had sixteen flattops with approximately 580 aircraft available for both the direct support of the landing force and defense of the assault shipping. Plans called for roughly 130 aircraft to be on-station from dawn to dusk to provide a last ditch defense of the landing area. Of course, far more aircraft were required to maintain a continuous, seamless presence, and even more were siphoned away from ground support as they were at Okinawa. The ability of the CAPs (combat air patrols) to actually maintain coverage of this area once battle was joined—the CAP checkpoints averaged fifteen miles apart over a clutter of cloud-covered peaks—proved to be extraordinarily difficult and broke down quickly. We didn’t have enough depth. The CAPs were drawn away from the barrier patrol by the first Japs coming through. We had expected that there would be some leakers— possibly quite a few—but did not anticipate that they could successfully coordinate and launch as many aircraft as they did.”

“It sounds to me, sir,” observed his questioner, “that they had figured us out.

“It’s clear that they’d developed plans based on a comprehensive understanding of the set-piece way in which we do business—our amphibious operations,” acknowledged the admiral, “and that their plans extended well beyond air operations. In fact, they were so confident in their analyses of our intentions that they moved a number of divisions into Kyushu before our airpower—our ability to interdict them—had been built up sufficiently on Okinawa. The Japs were one step ahead of us. Our intelligence noted the appearance of these reinforcements which, when combined with the units already there and the new divisions being raised from the island’s massive population, presented us with an awful picture, but one that we could have dealt with if we had been able to get our forces ashore intact.

“There’s an interesting footnote for future historians on this matter. Some of you may know that the original name of the Kyushu operation was Olympic, but do you know why the code name was changed? When intelligence discovered the rapid buildup, it was believed that the invasion plans may have somehow been compromised. The change from Olympic to Majestic represented an effort to confuse Japanese intelligence when, in fact, the changes were based on analyses conducted within Imperial headquarters. The Japanese had correctly deduced both the location and approximate times of both Majestic and Coronet and decided to expend the bulk of their aircraft as kamikazes during the critical first ten days of each invasion. The landing forces themselves were to be the main focus of Japanese efforts, with additional aircraft allotted to keep the carrier task forces occupied.”

More than a few of the officers present would have liked to be told how Turner knew this but knew better than to ask, and the next question returned to the kamikazes. It came from another former destroyer captain.

“Sir, irrespective of how many of our own aircraft were used for suppression of Nip bases and defense of the landing zones, it seems to me that the very large number and close proximity of their bases—and Kyushu’s mountains—created virtually ideal conditions for the suiciders.”

“Yes. I’ve had a good deal of time to think about this. The Japanese had seven interrelated advantages during the defense of the home islands that they did not have at Okinawa.

“First, their aircraft were able to approach the invasion beaches from anywhere along a wide arc, thus negating any more victories along the line of the [Marianas] Turkey Shoot or the Kikai Jima air battles [north of Okinawa], where long distances required Jap aircraft to travel relatively predictable flight paths.

“Second, Kyushu’s high mountains masked low-flying kamikazes from search radars, thus limiting our response time to incoming aircraft. Plans were made to establish radar sites within our lines and on the outlying islands as quickly as the tactical situation allowed, but this had only a minor effect on the central problem—the mountains. In addition, most shore-based radar units during Majestic were not slated to be operational until after X+10—and by then the kamikaze attacks were drawing to a close.

“Third, we knew that the Japs were suffering from a severe shortage of radios, and some among us discounted their ability to coordinate attacks from dispersed airfields and hiding places through use of telephone lines. At this point in the war, however, Jap reliance on telephones was more a strength than a weakness. No communications intercepts there. Our forces could neither monitor nor jam the land lines and, like the Jap electrical system, it presented few good targets for air attack.

“The fourth advantage was related to the second and had to do with the virtually static nature of our assault vessels while conducting the invasion. Because the ships disembarking the landing force were operating at a known location, kamikazes didn’t have to approach from a high altitude, which allowed them the visibility needed to search for far-flung carrier groups yet also made them visible to radar. Instead, they were able to approach the mass of transports and cargo ships from the mountains and then drop to very low altitudes. The final low-level run on the ships offered no radar, little visual warning, and limited the number of antiaircraft guns that could be brought to bear against them. It wasn’t difficult to see that this was going to be a problem during Majestic, since a much larger percentage of kamikazes got through to their targets when flying under radar coverage to fixed locations, like Kerama Retto anchorage [Okinawa], than those approaching ships at sea from higher altitudes.

“I want to stress, however, that despite the advantages offered by radar picking up the high-fliers, ships operating at any fixed location invited concentrated attack, and the radar pickets near certain Japanese approach routes to Okinawa suffered much more than those on the move with fast carrier task forces. The lack of predictable approach routes at Kyushu only exacerbated the situation.

“Fifth, we had begun extensive use of destroyers as radar pickets as early as the Kwajalein operation in January 1944, and by the end of that year comparatively sophisticated CICs (combat information centers) were effectively providing tactical situation plotting and fighter direction from select destroyers. Unfortunately, coordination within and timely communications from the radar pickets’ newly installed CICs presented a problem, with the centers frequently becoming overwhelmed by the speed of events and sheer quantity of bogies. Add a nearby landmass to the equation, and things got dicey in a hurry.

“Sixth, as previously noted radar coverage of the countless mountain passes was virtually nil during the Kyushu operation, and the 5th Fleet CAPs attempting to form a barrier halfway up the island were essentially on their own because they were frequently out of direct contact with the pickets assigned to control the checkpoints. The barrier patrol over the 120-mile-wide midsection of Kyushu and Amakusa-Shoto, an island close to the west, were able only to find and bounce a comparatively small percentage of attackers coming through the mountains, and this number shrank even further in areas with a modest amount of cloud cover. As it turned out, Majestic was launched at a time that the weather was ideal for Japanese purposes— and I might add the same would have been true for Coronet. Not only did the moderate-to-heavy cloud cover, ranging from 3,000 to 7,000 feet, tend to mask the low-level approach of aircraft to the landing beaches, but the inexperienced Jap pilots searching for carriers out to sea from high altitudes also found that these clouds provided good cover from radar-vectored CAPs while being no great hindrance to navigation.

“Last, and perhaps most important of all, a proportionately small number of suicide aircraft got through to the vulnerable transports off Okinawa because of the natural tendency of inexperienced pilots to dive on the first target they saw. As a result, the radar pickets had, in effect, soaked up the bulk of the kamikazes before they reached the landing area. Accomplishing this entailed terrible losses even though the destroyers had their own CAPs and were sometimes supported by LCSs and LSMs acting as gunboats. At Kyushu, however, there were no radar pickets on the landward side of the assault shipping to absorb the blows meant for the slow-moving troop transports and supply vessels, which had to lock themselves into relatively static positions offshore during landing operations. These were the ships that kamikaze pilots were specifically to target, and circumstance and terrain went a long way toward helping them achieve their goal of killing the largest number of Americans possible.

“While all this must seem like a wonderful example of twenty-twenty hindsight, I believe that we could have anticipated much more of this ahead of time if we had not been lulled by the lack of air opposition in the months preceding Majestic. It was simply inconceivable to many of us that they would be willing to take the degree of punishment that they did from the air without fighting back. It crossed few minds that they were, in effect, waiting to see the whites of our eyes. Next question.”

“Sir, wouldn’t this also tie in with why we didn’t disperse our blood supplies ahead of the invasion?”

The young captain’s question touched on one of the most grim facets of the invasion. Five LST(H)s, one for each set of invasion beaches, had been outfitted as distribution centers for plasma and whole blood needed by the wounded ashore. Even before the first waves of landing craft hit the beaches, one had been turned into an inferno and another sunk by midmorning of X-Day. For many thousands of wounded ashore, this was a disaster of terrible proportions. The landing beaches now denied blood supplies had been unable to receive assistance from the remaining three vessels because of excessive casualties in those ships’ own assigned areas. Although it was difficult to calculate precisely, estimates of the number of wounded whose deaths might have been prevented if the immediate blood supply had not been nearly halved ran as high as 4,100. Emergency shipments were rushed up by destroyer from Okinawa and flown direct to escort carriers off Kyushu aboard Avenger torpedo bombers from the central blood bank on Guam. These emergency shipments, together with blood donated by bone-tired sailors after the last air raids of the day, enabled the situation to be stabilized by X+4.

“The care and storage of blood products is a complicated matter. It is a valuable—and highly perishable—commodity that needs to be stored in and distributed from refrigeration units. The system for blood distribution at Kyushu made perfect sense in light of these requirements and past experience. The blood supply expert on MacArthur’s staff had, in fact, pointed out the vulnerability of the system to be employed, but lack of proper facilities had rendered any worthwhile changes impossible on such short notice.”

Even Turner realized that his answer sounded like it had been written by a press officer, and he quickly moved on to the next question by pointing to an officer in the third row who had raised his hand twice before.

Deception Operations

“Sir, with all the ships we produced during the war, why didn’t we create a dummy invasion fleet? Why didn’t we make more of an effort to draw their planes out early so that we could get at them?”

The admiral did not answer immediately, but instead cast a glance at the poker face of Spruance, sitting to his left. Had the young captain thought of this himself or had he picked up on clues in the newspapers where references to an elaborate deception operation—not carried out—were already beginning to leak from an unannounced, closed-door session that Turner had with the Taft-Jenner committee? The room was deathly quiet as the admiral looked back to the podium and drew a deep breath. The men—the veterans—in the room deserved to get an answer.

“Certain deception operations were conceived ahead of Majestic,” he began. “Code-named Pastel, they were patterned after the very successful Bodyguard operations conducted against the Nazis before, and even well after, the Normandy invasion. Through those operations, very substantial German forces were held in check far from France in Norway and the Balkans, and a well-equipped army north of the invasion area was kept out of the fight until it was too late to intervene effectively. Deception operations of this type were particularly effective in Europe, with its extensive road and rail nets, but were a waste of time against Japan proper. They all assumed a strategic mobility that the Japanese did not possess for higher formations—corps and armies—and were made even less effective by our own air campaign against the home islands, which essentially froze those formations into place. Distant movements could only be made division by division and only at a pace that a soldier’s own feet could carry him. Likewise, the success of the blockade rendered the deception operations against Formosa and the Shanghai area unnecessary.

“The Japanese, themselves, had realized this early on, and their system of defense call-up and training during the last year was reoriented toward raising, training, and fielding combat divisions locally in order to minimize lengthy overland movements. With major population centers within easy marching distance of threatened areas, they could actually get away with this. The most useful comparison to our own history might be the Minutemen.”

Turner could see that some of the students were questioning the relevance of his comments and were wondering if he was going to dodge the question altogether.

“In short,” he continued, “we spent far too much time and energy trying to keep the Japanese from doing something that both we and the Japs knew they couldn’t do anyway. To the specifics of your question, in May of last year, I, along with Admirals Spruance and [Marc A.] Mitscher, were replaced by Bill Halsey and his crew so that we could begin planning for Kyushu. I regretted not being able to see Okinawa through to the finish, but Iceberg was to have been wrapped up in forty-five days, and since the 5th Fleet of Admiral Spruance had been selected to handle Kyushu, what was then called Olympic, planning could not be delayed any further.

“Our work was conducted back at Guam and took full account of what we had learned at Okinawa. It was my conclusion that kamikaze attacks of sufficient strength might so disrupt the landings that a vigorous resistance ashore against our weakened forces would put our timetable for airfield construction in serious jeopardy. Four months was the minimum time judged necessary for base construction and subsequent softening up before our landings near Tokyo. These, in turn, had to be conducted before the spring monsoon season, when use of our armored divisions from Europe would become impossible on the Kanto, or Tokyo, Plain. The landing force had to get off to a running start, and it was up to us to get them there in the best possible shape. What we proposed was exactly what you suggested form a fleet—a dummy fleet carrying no men; no equipment—escorted by the usual screen but with the air groups rearranged to carry a preponderance of Hellcats and Corsairs.

“It had to look credible, especially from the air. Feints at Okinawa, that we had considered quite impressive, had absolutely no discernible impact on the course of the campaign. Moreover, communications intelligence made it clear that the Japs were expecting us to try something like that again and we estimated that we would have to utilize 400 ships, not counting the escort, in order to provide enough mass to be convincing. Assault shipping and bombardment groups would form up at multiple invasion beaches. We would follow all normal procedures— heavy radio traffic, line of departure, massive bombardment. All of this would take time, of course, and the Japs would be able to get a real good look at us. They would judge it to be the real thing because it was—minus a half-million troops! They would send up thousands of aircraft to come after us and we would be able to concentrate virtually all of our airpower, by sectors running from Nagoya [south-central Honshu] through Kyushu, and we would knock them down. There would be leakers. We would lose ships and many good sailors. But at the end of the day—actually three days—we’d pull out.

“The Japs would undoubtedly believe that they had repelled the invasion. Those same ships and others, however, would be at Okinawa, at Luzon, at Guam, loading for the real knockout. We would be back at Kyushu in just two weeks and this time there would be so few meatballs left that we could handle them easily. Preparations for Operation Bugeye were begun in early June at Pearl [Harbor] and Guam.”

A slight pause in Turner’s commentary precipitated a sea of hands raised across the floor. The Class of ’47 was a sharp group, and it was not hard to guess what was on their minds.

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